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Travels in Peru

Arrived in Lima on December 30 – just in time to ring in the New Year! Lima is a huge city – nearly one third of the entire population of Peru lives in the Lima urban area. We stayed in the Miraflores neighborhood, which is considered an upscale area, and sits cliffside high above the Pacific Ocean.

General Impression

We’d been to Lima previously, ten years ago to the month, but only stayed a few days back then, so it was great experiencing the city again with a more leisurely lens. We loved it.

Part of our great experience had to do with our living accommodations. Our apartment was beautiful- this was the first time on our trip that we’ve had roommates (the wonderful Chau Duong and Bri Suffety, who graciously surrendered the master bedroom to us). The apartment was perfectly situated on a relatively quiet street (for Lima!). We had an upscale grocery store right across the street, a “go to” restaurant (Mama Olla’s) half a block away on a pedestrian street, and most services (pharmacy, barber, etc) within a block or two.

Lima was one of the easiest cities we’ve lived in over the last nine months. The currency, the sole, is stable – in fact, the exchange rate is nearly what it was when we were here ten years ago, about 3 to a US dollar. The ATM’s all worked, most things we wanted to buy were available, most places accepted credit cards, and generally the city seemed to function efficiently, at least in our small part of town.

Dining

Ceviche

Sometime in the last ten years Lima has become a foodie city. There are several one world renowned restaurants here, and many people in our group enjoyed them. Barbara and I passed on those, since they were fairly expensive, but we still ate out at a number of great places. The local alcohol of choice is Pisco, which is brandy/cognac-like often made into a sour and topped with whipped eggwhites.   As you might expect on the coast, seafood was popular. We enjoyed the ceviche – freshly caught raw white fish marinated in lime juice and onions, which actually “cooks” it. There was also a wide variety of exotic (to us Texans!) fresh fruits available. One that I really enjoyed was the Aguaymanto (Peruvian cherry), which is a small fruit that looks like an orange cherry tomato. We were told that one of these small fruits contains as much Vitamin C as three oranges. Lots of other great food, too, including Chinese (the Chinese restaurants in Lima are called Chifas), Italian and various fusions.

Although we really enjoyed the City of Lima, much of our month was spent traveling around areas that we didn’t make it to on our previous trip ten years ago. We had already seen Cuzco and Machu Picchu, so we chose not to do that again, although we remember it as an amazing experience. Instead, we took a bus trip to the north, along the Pacific Coast, and then inland toward the mountains, ending up in Bolivia. Some of those travels are covered below! We also saw some of the lesser Nasca lines from a viewing tower. I had always pictured those as being carved in stone, but the ones we saw were simple drag lines in the dirt. Since it never rains in the very arid place where these lines are located, the wind keeps the lines swept clean, even over hundreds (thousands?) of years.

The City of Arequipa

Our morning view of Arequipa Square

Peru’s second largest city (by far, with less than one million people compared to ten million in Lima), it is a beautiful colonial city at Elevation 7660 feet. The weather was cool and pleasant, the air clean, the mountain views beautiful and the colonial architecture interesting. We experienced a small earthquake there on the morning we left!

Lake Titicaca

Every schoolboy’s favorite location (it’s just fun to say!), the lake covers a huge area between Peru and Bolivia and is very deep. Our bus drove around the perimeter for several hours, but we also had to take a ferry across a narrow arm of the lake. The people got off the bus and took a regular boat, but our bus came across on a flimsy barge.

Lake Titicaca ferry

The Oasis of Huacachina

An amazing freshwater “lake” and associated flora surrounded by huge sand dunes in the middle of the desert, Huacachina is said by some to be the only natural oasis in the Americas. It’s really a sight to see, although my allergies complained about the dust and the sand. The shopkeepers swept constantly to clear the airbourne sand particles from the fronts of their shops. There are only about 100 actual residents, who survive by catering to tourists who come in on buses to sandboard, ride dune buggies, or just enjoy the unusual scenery.

 

Lunch on Uyuani Salt Flats

The Bolivian Salt Flats

I’m not usually too impressed with stuff. I enjoy it all, but I don’t ooh and aah. However, there are no words to describe the salt flats. They are an otherworldly experience like nothing I’ve ever done. It was like having a mirage in a dream. Our tour guide set up a picnic lunch for our group of six out on the flats, where we sat with our sandal clad feet in the ¾-inch of water that covered the salt (the water is what causes the dreamlike effect, so that only happens after there has been a rain). The flats are huge – we were told they cover a larger area than Lake Titicaca. The site was well worth the grueling travel, which consisted of an overnight bus trip from La Paz to get to Uyuni (where the tours begin), and then another to get back to La Paz after our day at the flats.

The City of La Paz

We didn’t know much about La Paz, other than that it is the (or one of the!) highest capital cities in the world, at around 12,000 feet. We just knew we needed to go through there to get to the salt flats. But it’s a city that warrants a visit all its own. We spent only two days there, which wasn’t enough, but we did get to ride the gondolas, eat some local cuisine and walk on the elevated boardwalk through the park. We held up pretty well, elevation-wise, because our bus trip through Arequipa and the mountains had already acclimated us. However, there are a lot of hills and we did have to stop and catch our breath a few (many?) times.

Tidbits

The commuter system in Lima is actually a rapid bus system that runs on dedicated lanes down the center of the primary limited access highway. The few times we used it, it seemed to be quite crowded and well used. There was also a system of buses and vans running on the surface streets, but it was confusing and not user friendly at all. We used cabs, Uber and good old foot power most times.

Although humid, temperatures were pleasant the whole time we were there, with highs in the 70s F. It didn’t cool down much at night. We didn’t have, or need, AC at our apartment, but we slept with the windows open and there were no flying insect problems, even with no screens. It rarely rains in Lima (it’s technically a desert and annual rainfall is less than one inch!), but there were a couple times when there was a trace of moisture that almost wet the sidewalks. Most days included some sun and some clouds. Very nice, overall.

Prices were reasonable for most things, and downright cheap sometimes. Only a few times did we spend more than $20 per person for an entire meal plus drinks and tip, and those times were at very upscale restaurants. The more local restaurants would typically have a set lunch special (menu el dia) that ran about $3 or 4 US for an appetizer, main dish and dessert. But drinks were usually extra! A glass of wine usually ran between $4-6 US, often more than the meal itself. As you might expect, the more touristy places were a lot more expensive than the local places. I got a great haircut AND beard trim for less than $12 US, without even shopping around for the best deal.

Hang gliding off the cliffs in the Miraflores neighborhood was awesome – I went when we were here last time and several in our group went this trip. Most days there were many kites soaring above the cliffs. Surfing is also big, with rental shops and surf schools stretched all along the waterfront. Gambling is legal in Lima, and there are several large casinos throughout the City, and many smaller ones (often the larger Chifa restaurants have casinos in them).

The Ugly

Lima is a very crowded city, with all the problems that go with that. Air quality and traffic are bad. The tap water is not drinkable by most tourists, and the plumbing is old and undersized – toilet paper cannot be flushed (similarly to several other South American cities). Pedestrians are ignored by most drivers, even though there are huge crowds of people walking on narrow sidewalks most of the day. It’s everyone for themselves!

 

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Travels in Cordoba

After an amazing side trip to Iguazu Falls, we arrived in Argentina’s second largest city on December 2. What a contrast to the craziness of Buenos Aires! Cordoba is still a late-night culture and the people still warm and beautiful, but everything is dialed down a notch to a more sustainable level.

General Impression

This is interior Argentina. There is no port and very few foreign tourists, so our group was a bit of an anomaly and we were very well treated. Everyone seemed to be looking for opportunities to practice their English, and would frequently talk to us for no particular reason other than friendliness.

By far, what we will remember from our month here is the overwhelming warmth of the people. We felt welcome, safe and a part of things. Whenever we went to the same restaurant more than once and were served by the same waiter, we were usually recognized and welcomed back, sometimes with an Argentinian kiss on the right cheek.

There are several universities here. We were told that some offer free higher education to citizens and that there are possibly 300,000 students here in this city of about 1.5 million. Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, one of South America’s oldest universities, is located here.

Although very different from Buenos Aires in many ways, it’s still Argentina so the Cordobes still have much in common, such as inflation, cash issues, a history of political strife and, of course, the same language (Spanish).

Working

Our workspace was called La Maquinita, a 15-minute walk from our apartment, in the business district of Nuevo Cordoba. The view from there included a massive cathedral and a former women’s prison that has been converted into a public display space and plaza. Cordoba is a hardworking city with a business attitude and strong commercial core.

Local Flavor

Somehow I got sucked into drinking a local favorite – Fernet and Coke. Fernet is a bitter, syrupy spirit from Italy.   It is definitely an acquired taste – the first sip or two are bitter, even through the sweetness of the Coke, but it grew on me! Photo is from a class in making cocktails with local ingredients.

There’s an energetic vibe, driven by the high student population, many of whom remain here to live and work. Similar to Austin!

Christmas

We spent Christmas in Cordoba with our traveling family. Gift-giving, decorating and other normal holiday activities were minimal due to our mobile circumstances, so It was a relaxed and enjoyable period. The local population celebrates quietly with family and friends without the blatant consumerism of the US observance, so we did too!

Nightlife

We spent most of our time in Nuevo Cordoba, which is simply a newer section of the city than the traditional downtown. Our apartment was in a neighborhood called “Guemes”, popular with the younger crowd, with endless bars and restaurants that provided a wide range of nightlife options. Except on Monday nights when, for some reason, most establishments were closed.

There are several former alleys and courtyards that have been renovated into what are called Gallerias – basically small clusters of 8 to 10 bars and restaurants that can only be accessed by one point on the street. The access is typically gated in the daytime and you don’t even realize the Gallerias exist until everything comes alive between 6 and 7 pm.

Other Stuff We Did

We visited the Sierras, mountains east of the Andes, and saw several condors. In the Quebrada del Condorito park we also saw areas where indigenous vegetation had been devastated by a non-native feral hog population, very similar to the problems Texas has. They trap them, but it’s impossible to keep up.

Barbara also took an overnight trip to the wine country in Mendoza, but I skipped it due to the long bus ride.

We also volunteered with a charitable organization, Los Josefinos, that works with intercity kids to tutor them and coach them in rugby and field hockey.

Tidbits

There is a good bus system, although we used it only a few times. Taxis are plentiful and affordable. Uber is not officially sanctioned. There is no commuter rail system.

December in Cordoba is equivalent to June in the USA. It sometimes got quite hot at the peak of the day, low nineties for most of the days we were there, but with low humidity. There were also some days in the seventies. It rained several times during our visit. Winters are quite mild, and snow is rare.

Costs were just slightly less than they were in Buenos Aires – high by South American standards, but reasonable by US standards. A glass of house wine typically ran $4 or less, which seems cheap, but you could get a whole bottle of Malbec at the liquor store for not much more than that. Apartment rents in the Guemes neighborhood where we stayed seemed to be in the $600-$1000 USD per month range, for a lease (not AirBnB). Leases in pesos usually have escalation built in – inflation is between 20 and 30% per year.

We didn’t experience much “fine dining”. The beef culture in Buenos Aires didn’t seem to be present in Cordoba. Our best food experiences were typically lomo (beef loin) and Choripan (also beef) sandwiches. Empanadas are the local finger food of choice and are also very good.

The Ugly

Because of the financial issues, the amount of cash that can be withdrawn per day is limited, and we saw some long ATM lines – 25 or 30 people in line was not uncommon. However, unlike Buenos Aires, in Cordoba the banks have adopted a two-tier ATM fee system. If you want to pay the minimum ATM fee you can wait in line. If you are willing to pay a higher fee (about a 50% premium over the minimum) there was typically no line and the machines did not run out of cash. We just paid the higher fee.

The other drawback we experienced was the aforementioned lack of fine dining options. We don’t go 5 star every night, but sometimes it’s nice to find a 4!

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Travels in Morroco

Arrived late at night on September 29 into Marrakech’s very new and modern airport. Our entire group was in one apartment complex this month very close to the airport, so the trip to our new home was quick!

General Impression

It’s hard to admit, because Marrakech was one of the 12 host cities on our itinerary we had most looked forward to visiting, but we were disappointed. It’s a great place for a 4 or 5-day tourist visit, but not a place (in our opinion) to live for five weeks. Our great memories and experiences from the month are mostly about our trips OUT OF Marrakech, to the mountains, coast and desert.

Another issue was feeling like 90% of the local people are trying to cheat or steal from you, and the other 10% excuse it as a “cultural thing”. Our time in Marrakech was a stark reminder that not everyone in the world loves Americans or tourists in general, even though many of them rely on tourism for their livelihood. In most places where we’ve traveled, the local people overall seem pretty happy with life, even despite huge poverty and income disparity challenges. While this seemed true in the other parts of Morocco we visited, people in Marrakech seemed generally unhappy.

Dining

The local dish of note is Tajine (spelled about 5 different ways) – typically meat and/or vegetables with fruit (usually prunes or lemons), nuts and other spices roasted in a special covered terra cotta pot. The meat stays very moist, but gets so tender it basically falls off the bone. My favorite was beef with prunes and almonds, but there were many varieties. Chicken with lemo

Lemon Chicken Tajine

n and olives is another that is widely enjoyed. The French also have a history here and influenced the cuisine, especially the breads. Another big hit was pastilla – savory meat filling in a sweet pastry. Overall, the food was tasty and well prepared, but there wasn’t a huge variety.

 

The City

Marrakech is sometimes referred to as “The Red City” because the traditional dwellings were fashioned out of the native red soil. The City now REQUIRES all buildings to be roughly the same color. The uniformity has a soothing and tourist pleasing effect, but also makes every street tend to look alike!

French and Arabic are widely spoken, English less so.

Water is delivered by gravity from the Atlas Mountains, 30 km away.

There are a lot of stray cats, which are tolerated and even fed because they control the rodents.

The Medina

The area most people think about when they think “Merrakech” is the medina. The medina is the older, more traditional part of the city. It’s a bit of an Indiana Jones type place. Jemaa el-Fna is the large central square in the medina, from which a maze of small market streets (souks) br

Marrakesh Medina

anch off. In the daytime, the square is full of carts selling produce, spices and other products, as well as snake charmers, monkeys – you name it. In the evening, much of that goes away and hundreds of small portable lunch counter type businesses set up, serving tajine, snails, seafood and a huge variety of other foods until late into the night.

Mosques, Gardens and Palaces

There are, of course, many mosques – each with a tower that is usually the tallest structure in the vicinity. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but there is a call to prayer 5 times each day. The specific times of the call are determined by the relative positions of the sun and the moon.

There are many pretty gardens in courtyards and small parks, but even with irrigation the flora is limited – date palms, figs, pomegranates and a few varieties of flowering shrubs are common. There also seems to be a fondness for roses.

The royal family has palaces in many cities throughout the country, but those aren’t generally open to the public. We did get to see one very opulent old palace that has been preserved and turned into a museum (Bahia Palace) and another (El Badi Palace) that is actually a ruin of a massive royal palace built in the 16th century. This huge complex was only occupied for 100 years, when a different king decided to build another palace elsewhere. El Badi was simply abandoned and its marble and other features were used for other purposes. Today, storks build nests on its crumbling walls.

The Souks

The streets of market stalls, called souks, are fascinating and frequented by both tourists and locals. There seem 

Yarn/baskets Souk

to be about 10 basic businesses replicated hundreds of times and selling mostly the same stuff (shoes, general leather goods, spices, textiles, metalware, ceramics, painted glass etc.). Not sure who buys all that stuff! The interior streets are very narrow and used by motorcycles, bikes, donkeys and pedestrians. Cars are prohibited during business hours from souk areas and are supposed to be used only for off hour deliveries, but there are always a few that seem willing to test that.

Tidbits

Transportation was one of our biggest struggles. The buses are so overcrowded they aren’t much use. There is no Uber or similar ride sharing service. There are taxis everywhere, and they are not expensive, but the cars are in poor condition. Also, meters are rare (or, rather, every car has one but the drivers refuse to turn them on for foreigners), so you are faced with having to know what is a reasonable fare to pay and negotiating to something reasonable EVERY TRIP. This got very tedious. I found that claiming to be Canadian made negotiations easier. There was an immediate 10-15 dirham (10 dirham = $1) reduction without the “rich American” surcharge!

Shoe Souk

 

Regarding weather, October started out hot, but cooled down significantly over the month. High temperatures hit the low 90s many days early in the month, but were down to low 80’s by the end. Most days were dry with a good breeze and it was quite comfortable in the shade. We had a few thunderstorms without any significant accumulation of rain, and even had a minor dust storm one day. Temperatures along the coast were several degrees cooler. The desert was what you might expect – hot in the afternoons and chilly at night.

Cost of eating out was reasonable and tipping limited to more upscale restaurants, where 7-10% seemed common. We had expected alcohol to be expensive, since it is primarily consumed by tourists, but it wasn’t way out of line (although higher than other places we’ve lived so far). Groceries also were higher than our previous 5 cities, but probably comparable to the US. The availability and quality of fresh produce was spotty. We didn’t investigate apartment rental rates at all.

Other Stuff We Did

The highlight of our month was a camel trek into the Sahara. It took us over a day to ride there in a bus, but was well worth it. We mounted our camels and rode out into the desert for nearly two hours, then spent the night in an oasis in the middle of the sands after catching the sunset during the ride. We climbed up a huge dune (300’ tall) to watch the stars and the guides made us dinner. Then they sat around a fire and played traditional Moroccan drum music until late into the night. The stars were amazing, and it got very cold.   It’s impossible to convey the vastness and serenity. We woke up early to catch the sunrise and then made the return trek, back to a big breakfast at the hotel. By the time we got there my feet were almost thawed out!

On the way back from the Sahara we journeyed to the city of Fez, which took us through the Altas mountains. We stopped to see local monkeys in the forested part of the mountains and spent the night in a beautiful riad, which is a traditional opulent house built around a courtyard. The night included dinner and entertainment right in the riad.   The people in Fez were all very nice and we didn’t feel any American bias there like we did in Marrakech.

Barbara also made some side trips that she really enjoyed to a surfing beach (Agadir) and to the mountains. I wasn’t able to make those due to a brief illness.

We also spent a great week in Lisbon as a break from Marrakech for my birthday. Beautiful architecture, beautiful people, beautiful weather. It’s one of my favorite world cities since our first visit there in the summer of 2016.

Beautiful Blue Rabat
$8 lunch

When we returned to Marrakech we made a stop in the Moroccan capital city of Rabat and toured the blue medina there – apparently the blue painted walls repel mosquitos. We had a memorable lunch in a small local restaurant, where we had salad, bread, tagine, dessert, bottled water and mint tea. The proprietor came by our table to show us the proper way to pour our tea and helped us with the currency when we paid our bill. The total? About $8 US for BOTH our meals (not each!), including tip! In general, we found the people in Rabat far friendlier than in Marrakech.

 

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Travels in Buenos Aires

Arrived on November 4 – it was an overnight flight from Africa, so we arrived in South America in the daylight hours. Our entire traveling group was in one apartment complex this month, in the Palermo neighborhood. It was exciting driving through this beautiful city in the bright, spring sunshine. The abundance of trees and greenery was an immediate contrast to Morocco.

General Impression

We were here three years ago and loved it, so we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed! It’s a fun, vibrant city with lots going on.

The native language is Spanish, but English is widely spoken. We only had to rely on our rudimentary Spanish a few times a day, usually with cab drivers or store clerks.

Buenos Aires is a very green city, with lots of parks and open spaces. Many of the street trees in our Palermo neighborhood were huge, dating back to a city beautification program over 100 years ago. The jacaranda trees were in bloom!

Dinner starts no earlier than 8 here for most, so it tends to be a late lifestyle. The night life is crazy. Barbara and I weren’t big participants, but nightclubs many times aren’t even open until midnight and the fashionable crowds don’t show up until at least 1:00 am. It isn’t unusual for people to be out until 5 or 6 in the morning – not sure when they sleep or work. One morning I went up to do some work poolside at our apartment complex at about 7:30 am and there was a guy sitting by the pool who’d just arrived home from a nightclub.

Dining

Grilled meat is the big thing here, and it is good. Beef is most common, but pork, chicken and various sausages are widely available, and all good! It’s similar to Texas – but the local barbeque is called asado and the grill a parrilla.

There’s also significant Italian influence in town and that cuisine is common. But with a city population of nearly 3 million and an overall MSA of over 14 million, just about any type of food can be found.

The Rio de la Plata

Buenos Aires is a port city. The Rio de la Plata is the primary waterway that separates Argentina from Uruguay. The Rio is very wide and carries heavy sediments, as well as pollutants, from upriver, so there are no real beaches near Buenos Aires. Even though it has vast waterfront, it has not been developed as a public amenity. In fact, the domestic airport is located right along the water. One of the largest delta systems in the world is located an hour or so upriver from the city.

Politics

Argentina has had a turbulent past since becoming independent from Spain in the early 1800s, and it is very evident, with statues, monuments and park dedications all around the city. The years between WW II and the most recent democratic elections in 1983 were particularly hard. Juan and Eva Peron are still remembered as an advocate of the working class. Eva Peron’s tomb in Recoleta Cemetery still attracts many visitors. The low point was a military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, which implemented 8,500 confirmed “disappearances” to suppress communist sentiment. Some believe the true total to be 30,000.

Architecture

There’s an interesting mix of architectural styles. We were told that around

the time of the Paris World’s Fair when the Eiffel Tower debuted, Buenos Aires became infatuated with all Paris, so many of the buildings built around that time have a French influence, as do the wrought iron entrances to the subway. However, the actual subway system follows the English model – we got confused a few times because the trains (but not cars!) run on the left instead of the right and we mistakenly waited on the wrong side. There’s also Italian architectural influence but, surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much Spanish.

Buenos Aires is the capital city of Argentina, so is the seat of government with all of the associated buildings and other features.

Inflation

Argentina has undergone several financial crises over the past 30 years. This has resulted in a variety of new taxes, especially on imported goods, that have taken a toll on the local population. Inflation has been in the range of 20% per year. Even measured against the US dollar, things are much more expensive than when we were here 3 years ago – a bottle of wine in a restaurant is double 3 years ago (in US dollars – more in pesos!). Although, based on the number of people eating and drinking out at night, everyone seems to have figured out a way to deal with it. And restaurant price for a bottle of good domestic Malbec is still a bargain at around $20 USD!

Tidbits

There is a good, affordable transit system, with both buses and several metro lines. Taxis are plentiful and affordable. Uber is not officially sanctioned, but does have a significant presence. We found that for short trips the taxis were less wait and not significantly more expensive. Uber did seem a cheaper option for longer trips.

November is spring in Buenos Aires. We had nearly perfect temperatures the whole month and only a few days of rain. Typically, highs ranged from the mid-70’s to mid-80’s and lows around 60. We often needed jackets at night and early mornings. We’re told summers are generally hot and humid, and winters have no snow or freezing temperatures, although can get damp and chilly.

Costs for food and beverages have gone up significantly since our last stay here 3 years ago, but are still affordable by Austin standards. A glass of wine usually ran $5-6 USD, and we could usually find a bottle of Malbec for around $20 USD in a restaurant. Our best dinner out, which included one huge steak, one huge pork chop, an appetizer, a bottle of wine and sparking water was about $70 USD with tip. Tipping was 10-12% for waiters, but cab drivers and others generally weren’t tipped. Anything imported, which generally includes electronic goods and clothing, is very expensive – probably double what we’d pay in Austin. We couldn’t get a handle on rents – they seem to vary widely based on location and terms.

Other Stuff We Did!

We took the opportunity to hop on a two-hour flight and visit Iguazu Falls, which is located at the junction of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The falls and the associated park on the Argentina side are huge and amazing. We weren’t able to get to the Brazil side due to visa restrictions and costs.

We took a day trip to “The Delta” where we relaxed, kayaked and ate asado. We had a great day at a polo grounds a few hours outside of Buenos Aires, where we learned a little about polo, watched a match, tried our hand at playing and then went on a trail ride. We ate out more than our budget allowed and drank a lot of good Argentinian Malbec.

We also celebrated a fantastic Thanksgiving with our traveling family and some local guests, thanks to our Remote Year city lead, Santiago, who managed to find us an affordable place with an oven big enough for 2-25 pound turkeys and space for 50+people, and Barbara who led the kitchen crew.

The Ugly

Because of national financial issues, the amount of cash you can withdraw per day is limited. Consequently, people visit ATMs so often the machines tend to run out of cash. In addition, a lot of places don’t accept credit cards. We felt like we were continually in a cash crisis ourselves – one day I had to try seven ATMs to get the cash I needed. There are a lot of dogs in Buenos Aires, and a lot of irresponsible dog owners. We really had to watch where we stepped!

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